Evasive Maneuvering Around Belarus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 195

Uralkalii headquarters (Source: RIA Novosti)

The European Union’s Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, scheduled for November 28–29, is less than a month away. Unlike Ukraine, whose hopes of signing landmark political and trade deals with the EU in Vilnius hang in the balance amid wrangling over the fate of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, no such hopes have ever been entertained by Belarus. Moreover, the EU has recently extended its travel and economic sanctions on Belarus until October 31, 2014 (http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/foraff/139261.pdf). The sanctions are now active against 232 Belarusian citizens, including President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Even Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei is under sanctions that, in his case, are suspended until he changes his place of work. Also, economic sanctions still apply to 25 production units. The extension of sanctions is motivated by the fact that Belarus’s political prisoners have not been released. But the list of Belarusians unwelcome in the EU has been altered as 13 persons have been deleted and two persons added to the list. Economic sanctions have been lifted from five firms owned by Vladimir Peftiev, Belarus’s richest man. Among the Belarusians “freed” from travel sanctions, there are seven actual and former associates of the judicial system (judges and prosecutors), four former members of the regional electoral commissions, a former minister of information, and a former deputy chairman of the Belarus’s Commercial Court. Added to the visa sanctions list have been the director and vice director of the Bobruisk-based penal colony (http://news.tut.by/politics/372658.html).

Opposition-minded Belarusians are perplexed over the rationale behind the EU’s decision. Some accuse Brussels of making unilateral concessions to the “regime”; others are trying to figure out who inside Belarus has actually prodded the EU to lift travel sanctions for some people who resigned from their jobs for personal reasons but did not publicly repent. Facebook chat domains of the opposition activists are abuzz with speculations about that. Only Alyaksandr Milinkevich, a 2006 presidential hopeful, approved of the EU’s action. According to Milinkevich, the “EU is demonstrating its readiness to negotiate; but this does not imply sacrificing moral principles” (http://naviny.by/rubrics/eu/2013/10/30/ic_articles_627_183493/). The Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty (BSRL) conducted a discussion of the political prisoner situation in Belarus. According to Valer Karbalevich, a Minsk-based associate of the BSRL, the prisoners remain behind bars to maintain a fear among Belarusians of the consequences for taking part in protests. Karbalevich, however, also believes that Belarusian society does not pay much attention to the existence of political prisoners as well as to the still-unresolved cases of the disappearance of some opposition-minded Belarusians in 1999–2000. According to Paval Vusau, also a Minsk-based commentator, a lack of personal appeals to Lukashenka for clemency has been the most critical reason explaining the government’s retention of the prisoners. With regard to a routinely debated issue of the EU’s differential treatment of Belarus, on the one hand, and Azerbaijan, on the other, not to mention Russia and China, Vusau claims that the root cause of a more “principled” attitude to Belarus and Ukraine is that both are adjacent to the EU whereas Azerbaijan is not; while Russia and China are superpowers. Consequently, Ilham Aliev of Azerbaijan will probably participate in the EU’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, whereas Lukashenka will not (http://www.svaboda.org/content/article/25143807.html).

On October 28–29, a conference entitled “Strategies for the Future Policy towards Belarus” was held in Vilnius. Neither Minister Makei nor his deputy Elena Kupchyna, who were invited to that conference, accepted the invitation. Therefore, the pool of discussants included strictly EU and Lithuanian officials as well as some members of the Belarusian opposition. Andrei Sannikau, a 2010 presidential hopeful, now in exile in the United Kingdom, claimed that sanctions should be extended because they work. Andrius Krivas, the Lithuanian deputy minister of foreign affairs, suggested that “the situation in Belarus should change, and the key to these changes is in the hands of Belarusian authorities.” Krivas also greeted some positive steps of the Belarusian government, however, including the endorsement of the resumption of the Swedish embassy’s mission in Minsk, Belarus’s non-participation in Russia’s discriminatory trade measures toward Ukraine and Moldova, and Belarus’s “work” on recognizing the territorial integrity of Georgia (http://news.tut.by/politics/372579.html).

On Belarus’s eastern flank, on the other hand, the ongoing potash war retains the appearance of a thriller. Reportedly, on October 27, at the Leningradsky Railway Terminal in downtown Moscow, four associates of the Belarusian KGB attempted to arrest Igor Evstratov, a senior executive of the Belarusian Potassium Company (BPC), a now defunct joint trader that used to sell potassium-based fertilizers produced in both Russia and Belarus. Yet, according to RIA Novosti, the KGB operation failed as Evstratov was freed by the Russian police (http://en.ria.ru/world/20131027/184375934/Belarus-KGB-Accused-of-Abduction-Attempt-in-Potash-War.html).

The initial report, however, was soon revised. First, it appeared that the potential victim of the Belarusian law enforcement system was not Evstratov but his colleague Dmitry Samoilov. Second, as many as four former top executives of the BPC, all citizens of Russia residing in Moscow, had noticed that they were under surveillance—and those spying on them turned out to be associates of the Belarusian KGB (http://izvestia.ru/news/559603). A somewhat surprising aspect of the affair is that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), not to mention the leadership of Russia, has kept silent about the matter.

Meanwhile, the Belarusian Office of the Prosecutor’s investigation of Vladislav Baumgaertner, the CEO of the Russian potash producer Uralkalii, has been extended by two months (http://naviny.by/rubrics/society/2013/10/28/ic_articles_116_183465/). According to Alyaksandr Starikevich, one of the most prominent opposition-minded journalists of Belarus, Vladimir Putin is no hurry to secure Baumgartner’s release (http://www.svaboda.org/content/article/25151272.html). And yet the widespread opinion that Lukashenka has won the potassium war is premature. While he may have won the battle—his poll ratings have been going up—the denouement of the war at large is difficult to predict. For example, the initial announcements that Suleiman Kerimov, a Russian oligarch, sold his shares in Uralkalii (see EDM, September 12) have not been confirmed. Expelling Kerimov, along with the resumption of joint trading operations, have been on Lukashenka’s wish list; but neither wish has been granted.

It seems that the geopolitical tug of war over Belarus has entered a prolonged and uneventful stage, and neither Moscow nor Brussels want to shake the status quo.